Kenya roads offer some mixed experiences. But only recently could this adjective be applied to the consistently bad, bone-jarring dirt road up to Marsabit, more than 400km north of Nairobi en route to Ethiopia. You can read about Paul Theroux’s experiences travelling down this road (and being shot at) in the book “Dark Star Safari”.
Things are changing now with a lot of projects to upgrade the roads in Kenya and neighbouring countries—upgrading of the road to Marsabit isn’t complete, but the drive is getting much easier. Good tarmac roads now take you not only through the Kenyan highlands and down into the northern deserts past Isiolo to Shaba and Samburu reserves (about as far north as most tourists get), but now half way from Shaba to Marsabit (at the time of my visit) to a small settlement called Merille.
North of Archer’s Post, you are supposed to drive in convoy. We stopped in Isiolo and were assigned to a a group by the police there—two minivans, 4WD ambulance and a couple of trucks doing oil exploration in some remote part of northern Kenya. Despite the excellent road for more than 100km, it was painfully slow going, but we eventually reached Merille and stopped for lunch at a place called the Nomad Restaurant, where the other members of the group sternly advised me not to eat anything and left me to pace outside with a Coca Cola. North of here was a corrugated dirt road through the desert—surprisingly, we were hit by a rainshower along the first stretch. The drive north took forever, with one of the minivans suffering multiple ailments—a door refusing to close, leaking fluid, and getting stuck at one point in the sand. But eventually the Marsabit highlands came into view and we started ascending.
In and around Marsabit, it’s hard to believe you’re in the middle of a wide swath of desert. It was raining most of the time and the main road (with a Shell station and rows of houses, it could have been any town in Kenya) was a complete mudbath. There’s a lodge nearby called Marsabit Lodge—I’d tried the website and calling in advance but no success, so we had to wing it, and just went to ask at the gate to Marsabit National Park, on the edge of town. As luck would have it, the lodge was open (after being closed for over a year), they were even expecting some other guests that night, so we bought entrance tickets and drove a few kilometers into the park through beautiful mountain forest.
The forest in Marsabit Park has isolated populations of a number of mountain birds like Cabanis’s Greenbul, a host of robin-chats, and an endemic race of Dusky Flycatcher (which we surprisingly missed). A few more mundane things—but certainly birds missing from the surrounding desert—were around the lodge itself: White-browed Robin-Chat, Baglafecht Weaver and Red-eyed Dove, and a Mountain Buzzard soared overhead at one point. The lodge was positioned by a clearing with grazing water buffalos, it could have been somewhere around Mount Kenya or the Aberdares, and we managed a short drive through the beautiful mountain forest before dark (with a few challenges presented by trees that had fallen down in the bad weather). The rooms in the lodge were quite comfortable, great food, beer, and the manager was even the son of a famous lion hunter whose portrait was hanging in the lounge. At night, the generators are switched off and it was deathly quiet apart from the hyaenas howling.
We left early this morning to head down to the Dida Galgalu desert north of town. The land rapidly becomes drier and you quickly end up in barren country with lava rocks, interspersed further north with areas of golden sand. It is real desert, much drier than the bushland you get, say, around Lake Baringo or Tsavo East. Thekla Lark and Crested Lark are two of the commonest species here—Thekla seems to like rocky country, whereas Crested prefers sandier areas (although the two substrates are quite mixed). We stopped at several points during the day and went for long, hot walks through the lava boulders, but didn’t find any sign of our main target bird, Masked Lark, which we’d expected to be common in this area. In fact, the diversity was quite low—three species of wheatear, a number of Brown-tailed Chat, a few Somali Bee-eater, Somali Bunting and Somali Crow, and not too much else. In the evening, by a small damp area in the desert, we flushed three Heuglin’s Bustard, including two males.
The next day, we decided to drive further to see if the country would change, and indeed it did. After about 80km, we entered a vast landscape of flat, lava desert with jumbles of boulders. At the first stop in this area, we were rewarded with a pair of Cream-colored Coursers, and on the second we found two more of the characteristic birds of this area—a group of 5 Masked Lark feeding tamely on the ground (not that there’s anywhere else to feed around here) on a small sandy patch in between the lava rocks. We also flushed a pair of Williams’s Lark in this area.
It was about midday by the time we returned to Marsabit, and we decided to explore the chances of finding a convoy back south that afternoon, to avoid a grueling drive all the way back to Nairobi the following day. But this time, the police couldn't include us in a convoy and suggested we just drive back south ourselves—apparently the tarmac section covers some of the previous banditry hot-spots--although there HAS been a serious shooting at a vehicle travelling the (still unpaved) Laisamis-Marsabit stretch of the highway since my visit in November 2011. On the other hand, driving solo took us less than half the time, and we arrived late afternoon in the Shaba Game Reserve for a more comfortable final night at the Sarova Shaba Lodge.
I’d thoroughly recommend this Lodge, set on the banks of a large river (complete with crocodiles) in an oasis in the middle of dry country. You don’t see as much big game as you do on the Samburu side west of the highway but the birds are probably more unusual. About 20km east of the resort, there is even a small area of grassy lava desert with Williams’s Lark and—according to the books—subspecies intensa of Masked Lark (although I’ve never seen it myself in this area). My first visit to Shaba in April 2010 was during the rainy season—the whole area was covered in grass and flowers—with many calling Harlequin Quail, marshes with Fire-fronted Bishop, White-winged Widowbird and hordes of Cardinal Quelea, and a singing Friedmann’s Lark about 3km east of the resort. But during the current visit it was quite dry, and we saw many of the commoner species like Rosy-patched Bushshrike, Donaldson-Smith’s Sparrow-Weaver, Pink-breasted Lark, Cut-throat, a single Little Sparrowhawk, and doves galore.
The highlight of a game drive the following morning had to be a pair of Red-necked Falcon, a few kilometers east of the resort, in a dry area near the river with scattered palms. And after an amazing breakfast at the hotel, it was plain sailing down tarmac back to Nairobi.
Many thanks to Peter Wairasho of the Kenya Natural History Museum for accompanying me on this trip.
(I have photos available of Masked and Thekla Larks and the Red-necked Falcon).
• Helmeted Guineafowl—about 10
• Vulturine Guineafowl—about 30
• Sacred Ibis—about 10 (Sarova Shaba)
• African Openbill—about 25 (including some north of Marsabit)
• Marabou Stork—about 10 (Sarova Shaba)
• Yellow-billed Stork—8 (Sarova Shaba)
• Black Kite—2
• White-backed Vulture—2
• Rueppell’s Griffon—6
• African Fish-Eagle—1
• juvenile Snake-Eagle—1 (probably Black-breasted)
• African Harrier-Hawk—1 (forest in Marsabit National Park)
• Eastern Chanting-Goshawk—10
• Little Sparrowhawk—1 (Shaba Game Reserve)
• Mountain Buzzard—1 (Marsabit National Park)
• Tawny Eagle—1
• Martial Eagle—1
• Eurasian Kestrel—1
• Red-necked Falcon—2 (Shaba Game Reserve)
• Heuglin’s Bustard—3 (about 30km north of Marsabit)
• White-bellied Bustard—2
• Buff-crested Bustard—2
• Spur-winged Plover—2 (Shaba)
• Cream-colored (Somali) Courser—2 (about 80km north of Marsabit)
• Black-faced Sandgrouse—about 30
• Speckled Pigeon—about 40 (road up to Marsabit, mostly)
• Red-eyed Dove—4 (Marsabit National Park)
• Ring-necked Dove—about 50
• Laughing Dove—4
• Namaqua Dove—3 (north of Marsabit)
• Red-bellied Parrot—2 (Sarova Shaba)
• White-bellied Go-away-bird—about 12
• Little Swift—about 50
• Blue-naped Mousebird—about 10
• Somali Bee-eater—4
• Rufous-crowned Roller—1 (Shaba)
• Eurasian Hoopoe—1
• Red-billed Hornbill—about 8
• Von der Decken’s Hornbill—2
• Black-throated Barbet—2
• Taita Fiscal—8
• White-rumped Shrike—1
• Fork-tailed Drongo—8
• Williams’s Lark—2 (80km north of Marsabit)
• Pink-breasted Lark—3
• Masked Lark—5 (1 group, 80km north of Marsabit)
• Crested Lark—about 20 (north of Marsabit only)
• Thekla Lark—about 40 (north of Marsabit only)
• Rock Martin—3 (Marsabit Lodge)
• Barn Swallow—3
• Common Bulbul—about 20
• Tawny-flanked Prinia—1 (Shaba)
• African Gray Flycatcher—about 10
• Spotted Flycatcher—2
• White-browed Robin-Chat—1 seen and many heard
• Northern Wheatear—3
• Isabelline Wheatear—4
• Pied Wheatear—5
• Brown-tailed Chat—about 10 (north of Marsabit)
• Olive Thrush—2 (Marsabit National Park)
• Wattled Starling—2 (north of Marsabit)
• Superb Starling—20
• Fischer’s Starling—5
• Red-winged Starling—2 (Sarova Shaba)
• Bristle-crowned Starling—1 (north of Marsabit)
• Golden-bellied Starling—3
• Variable Sunbird (albiventris)—1 (north of Marsabit)
• Somali Bunting—2 (north of Marsabit)
• Parrot-billed Sparrow—3
• White-headed Buffalo-Weaver—about 20
• White-browed Sparrow-Weaver—about 20
• Donaldson-Smith’s Sparrow-Weaver—4
• Purple Grenadier—1
• Green-winged Pytilia—1
• Savanna Baboon—about 20
• Vervet Monkey—4 (Shaba)
• African Buffalo—about 20 (Marsabit National Park)
• Waterbuck—4 (Shaba)
• Impala—1 (Shaba)
• Gerenuk—2 (Shaba)
• Grant’s Gazelle—1
• Kirk’s Dik-Dik—2